North Downs Way Hike: August 2017

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Sep 16, 2013
444
127
Rochester, Kent
Hi All,

Thought I'd post up the report from my recent blog post on a hiking trip along the North Downs Way. I'll be brutally honest and say that this is an article which presents very clearly how NOT to hike! Lots of lessons were learnt following some rather silly decision making on my behalf.

Feel free to click on my blog (link below) to view the piccies!

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On recent camps, I've become a little conscious that all I've been doing is visiting the same patch of woods and doing the same kind of thing. It was all good and well, but sometimes it’s worth taking yourself out of that comfort zone.

I had some time off work in August and I started to hatch a plan for my monthly wild camp. I had a desire to go on a hike and wondered what it might be like to get the train somewhere on a one-way ticket and then walk back home. I immediately reached for my maps and looked at potential options. It had to be a reasonable distance and I also wanted it to be a pleasant walk that offered up some nice views.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the North Downs Way. This is one of Britain's 16 national trails which criss-cross our green and pleasant land. The North Downs Way covers more than 150 miles from Farnham in Surrey to Dover in Kent. Much of the trail runs through designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and happily it also goes through my home town of Rochester in Kent. National trails are generally well maintained meaning that, even an idiot of my calibre shouldn't have any trouble navigating it!

My decision was made then, I was to follow this trail, but how far should I go? I studied the map and the trail to see what train stations took me close to the trail, one place stood out like a beacon...Canterbury!

According to the very helpful guides on the National Trail website it was approximately 45 miles from Rochester. I thought that was a reasonable distance that I could cover over 3 days, but, with no real experience of long distance hiking (or even short distance hiking!), was I upto the challenge?

The one ace up my sleeve is that I have been keeping myself reasonably fit lately. My wife and I have become slightly obsessed with a thing called ‘Parkrun’ (google it; it’s great and it’s free!!) and I go out running three times a week. So I felt confident about the fitness, I just needed to think carefully about what I needed to take in my backpack. I judged that the key is to not overload yourself and as always I drew up a list of options for my shelter, sleeping, cook kit and other sundries.

In terms of my kit for the trip:

I opted to take my small tent (Vango Banshee 200) along with an inflatable sleeping mat (Multimat) and one season sleeping bag (Snugpak Travelpak). I then opted to take my Trangia Mini cookset. Being that it is light, reliable and easy to use, the trangia seemed perfect for the job. I restricted myself to carrying just 2 litres of water as I'd be passing by a few villages where I was confident I could keep the bottles topped up. I then packed some dehydrated ‘adventure’ food. The meals are fairly expensive but lightweight, compact and rich in calories. I’d never really felt compelled to try them before (a packet of sausages or bacon is usually my preference!) but thought I’d give them a go for this trip along with a few snacks for the trail. I then packed some spare/warm/waterproof clothes, first aid kit, head torch, spoon, Swiss army knife, tea bags and of course my camera. All in all the bag weighed approximately 12-13kg which I thought was fairly reasonable given I was planning for three days.

Let’s get ready to ramble….

The time had come; Monday morning as everyone was headed off to work, I was walking down to the train station with my backpack feeling a tinge of excitement at the micro-adventure that awaits. I refused to be perturbed by the fine misty rain that persisted through the morning, nor the hot and humid temperatures (hardly perfect conditions for a walk). I made it to the station with barely a minute to spare and was soon sitting on the train looking out the window as the concrete splattered town fades out into trees and fields full of rich greenery.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to pursue a detailed insight into each and every step of my journey for it was long and my waffling would quickly bore you into a sleepy stupor. I’ll stick to the headlines!
I stepped off the train in Canterbury at 7am, sent my wife a text to say that I’d arrived and that I was on my way home, “see you in 3 days!” and so it began a long hard day of walking beckoned. It didn’t take long to find the North Downs Way, once on the trail my first stop was going to be the village of Chilham which was about seven miles down the trail. I wanted to stop here to re-fill my water bottles and visit the village shop so that I could get some more food on-board for lunch. I’d obviously packed those adventure meals but had always planned to supplement it with additional things that I’d find in the village stores.

So far the trail was proving to be very easy going, I was making good progress and feeling strong. Having reached Chilham by 10am, I had another 8 miles to cover before reaching my first campsite for the night. The trail did however take a slightly more challenging route after Chilham as I ascended quite steeply up a long and chalky hill to reach a ridgeway that would take me through some amazing ancient woodland (Kings Wood) and also offer me some great views across the North Downs.

As lunchtime drew near, I was still feeling positive. My body was working hard as I was sweating quite a lot in the humidity, but I was drinking plenty of water and also helping myself to the abundance of fruit on offer along the trail (apples, pears, blackberries and plums aplenty!). August was clearly a fruitful time to be walking through the Kent countryside!

By lunchtime, I had covered 15 miles and reached the campsite near Eastwell, where I had intended to stop for the night. It looked lovely and I’d have been very happy to pitch my tent there.

There is however a ‘But’ coming……

It felt like it was too early to stop. Physically, I felt fine and my mind was telling me to keep going, so I did! It was at this point that I considered that I could instead complete the journey within two days rather than three.

By the way, when I refer to ‘journey’ I’m talking in the literal sense and not all that spiritual journey twaddle that you hear people bleating on about on reality tv/talent shows!

So, that’s what I did, I kept on truckin’! I kept following the acorn signs that marked out the national trail and ticking off the miles. I then passed a trail marker which indicated it was two miles to Charing which was to be the next village that I could visit to re-fill my water bottles and take on-board some extra water for the night (I was drinking lots and lots of water!). My plan had changed to the point that I now intended to walk until dusk, set-up camp on the side of trail, eat, sleep and carry on again at first light.

On reflection, my mind-set by this point had changed quite dramatically. I had previously been motivated by the prospect of the easy going walk along the Downs with a couple of nights camping being the real highlights (I love camping!). I then found myself motivated to cover the distance and walk home relatively quickly. The camping element that I’d typically value above all else had almost become an insignificance. I can’t quite understand why this had happened, it was as if I’d flicked a switch in my brain and I told myself “right; your walking home now, time to crack on”.

By 5pm, I was well over half way home. I’d covered just over 25 miles and had stopped at a war memorial near Lenham for a well-earned cup of tea and some cheese and oat cakes (how posh!). For some reason, I’d yet to consume any of my adventure meals and had instead been filling myself up with high protein snack bars and fruit that I’d foraged on the side of the trail. By now, the aches and pains had by well and truly set in and I was starting to feel very tired.

Come 6pm though, I’d packed up, put my boots back on and continued on my way. I decided that I’d continue walking until 8pm when the light would begin to fade. I had hoped to reach a country park near the village of Detling that I had originally planned to wild camp at for my second night on the trail. I couldn’t quite believe that it was almost within reach on my first day of walking! Alas, I didn’t quite make it that far. In that final two hours, I covered another seven miles along the beautiful rolling hills of the North Downs.

I initially found a nice flat camp spot on top of a hill with stunning views across Kent and was about to pitch my tent when I noticed a herd of cows grazing nearby, I guessed it was probably not a great idea to be camping amongst them, let alone the risk of being caught by the farmer! I continued on for a few hundred metres and found a secluded spot with equally impressive views. The only downside was that it wasn’t exactly flat, but quite frankly, I didn’t really care! I pitched my tent in record time, made a cup of herbal tea while I enjoyed the views and called my amazing wife to let her know that I was safe. Despite the fact that I pitched on a slope, I enjoyed a solid eight hours of sleep.

I awoke at 5am the following morning, it was still dark and I decided that I wanted to get packed up and back on the trail at first light. My ankles were in a really bad way, incredibly sore and as stiff as two concrete blocks. I had another 15 miles to walk and hoped/prayed that they’d loosen up. I spent some time stretching and preparing myself for the final stretch of the walk. My mentality had deteriorated by this point, If I’m brutally honest, I don’t believe that I was enjoying it anymore and was simply motivated to get the walk finished. I realised that I had made a grave mistake by walking past my first camp site yesterday lunchtime and should have stuck to my plan.

Getting up so early on a fine summers day really does lift the spirit though. As I descended from the Downs to meet a section of the historic pilgrims way (it runs alongside the North Downs Way for many sections), I was rewarded with some amazing views of Kent as it was being flooded with some glorious early morning sunlight. For the briefest moment, I forgot about my aches and pains and enjoyed the views and remembered the fundamental reason for doing this walk in the first place. My head might have been in a difficult place but I did at least remember to stop and drink in these glorious views of our glorious country.

It took four hours to complete the last 15 miles, my ankles did loosen up but the stoney paths played havoc with a couple of my blisters and my heavy and sweaty backpack began to rub on my hips and cause some discomfort. I was somewhat relieved when I got my first glimpse of Rochester and the finish line. Mercifully the last couple of miles were pretty much all downhill!

I headed into Rochester and back home feeling pleased with my achievement but also humbled. Walking long distances isn’t as easy as you might imagine, it gave me a serious kicking and it has taught me a harsh lesson in life. I shan’t be so naïve next time I go on an adventure and I shall be sure to remember the reference to ‘bimbling’ in my blog rather than ‘yomping’ through the countryside like a trooper!

My wife greeted me as I returned home and was eager to capture a photo of me as I grimaced in pain. Happily she had also run me a nice bath!!
 

Brynglas

Full Member
Nice write up, and a very honest appraisal of your trip. I try and do a long walk once or twice a year, earlier this year I did the Cape Wrath Trail and you're right to identify that temptation to carry on regardless rather than camp up and recover.

Cracking walk though, sounds like a lovely couple of days, I hope that your aches have eased up by now!

Sent from my SM-G930F using Tapatalk
 

Norm De Plume

Member
Aug 14, 2017
21
0
Suffolk
Thanks for that - part of the reason I got into bushcraft was to allow me to do 50 mile walks with a minimum of gear. Not only was it fun to read, but you have just saved me from making a couple of mistakes, and given me some more ideas too :)
 
Sep 16, 2013
444
127
Rochester, Kent
Thanks all for the kind comments, glad you like it.

Thanks for that - part of the reason I got into bushcraft was to allow me to do 50 mile walks with a minimum of gear. Not only was it fun to read, but you have just saved me from making a couple of mistakes, and given me some more ideas too :)
My pleasure, if I was to go on another long distance hike (I'd still like to walk the rest of the north downs way) then I would save quite a lot of weight by switching the tent for a bivi bag and small tarp to cover my head if its raining. I also could have done without quite a few of the extra clothes that I took (partly because the journey was much shorter than planned). I'd also save weight by packing less food next time. I didn't expect to be able to forage so much fruit and there were shops and pubs along the route. While the trangia was awesome, I took too much fuel (500ml of meths) when I only used a small fraction of it. Would probably take 250ml next time.

Good luck with your hike, let us know how you get on.
 

Wander

Nomad
Jan 6, 2017
402
385
Here There & Everywhere
Great write up.
About 5 years ago I walked the entire NDW with a couple of friends. It took us 10 days (well, technically, 9.5) - so averaging about 15 miles a day.
I felt buggered after that. And we got our certificate from KCC/Visit Kent!

That stretch between Charing and Blue Bell Hill is the worst. Particularly the bit between Hollingbourne and Detling. I recall the path drops down the hill and back up (is it called Cats Mount?). We nearly just decided to skirt around the top, but honour drove us to do that dip. And it does that 3 or 4 times as you go past Detling.
Incidentally, that stretch they call The Pilgrims Way isn't THE Pilgrims Way. No. It's a Victorian invention, when going for brisk walks in the countryside was considered a wholesome thing to do. Many people make the mistake of thinking its the path the pilgrims took to Beckett's shrine. When you look at the route it takes it's obvious it's not since it keeps going up and down - that's a leisure walk NOT a medieval thoroughfare! The route the pilgrims took to Canterbury was more or less the modern A2 - which is ON TOP of the downs, as you'd expect.
Still a nice walk though.